I know this has been a long time coming, which makes me even more exited to present to you the third installment of our story where we flew to Sacramento, bought cheap 4x4s, and took them 2,200 miles through some of the best off-roading and overlanding the United States has to offer. Do I have you hooked yet?
[Edit: Ooops hey my re-share for the night crowd actually worked! I thought it hadn’t so I made a post about it...]
The tl;dr is Taylor ended up with a 1995 Toyota 4Runner 5-Speed, George bough a trash can 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, and I was the foolish of all, having purchased a 2001 Land Rover Discovery II. We’d already put them through their paces in the mountains around Tahoe and Bodie, and now we were ready to take on the big one...
We entered the park from the north east, taking Death Valley road in. Initially the road was excellent and surprisingly pretty. We lumbered through some small canyons and remarked that already Death Valley wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. Despite actually having been there before, though a very long time ago, I had it in my mind Death Valley was a Lawrence of Arabia style series of dunes and nothingness. In reality it was a beautiful, hilly area with some really unique vegetation.
Our first stop was going to be Crankshaft Junction. It is a semi-famous intersection allegedly famous for well... having a lot of crankshafts at it. It looked pretty cool in pictures but reality was... lacking. We moved on quickly.
A wrong turn brought us to a weird ex-sulfer mine. Well... it wasn’t a wrong turn so much as our topo maps indicated it was a shortcut, but turns out there was no road to be had here. Still, pretty area, though the smell of sulfur was pretty overwhelming.
Unfortunately the next part of the trip was a serious grind. The last part of Death Valley road is arrow straight and 100% the worst washboard I’ve ever encountered. It basically shook our cars to pieces. We tried all kinda of tricks to get through it, and eventually made it, but at what cost? Taylor infamously said “We’re going to destroy something” over the radio and yeah... we
We eventually hit pavement and were entirely too exited about it. Our relief, however, was short lived as we quickly turned off to head to the exit of Titus Canyon. Though one way through the canyon, one can drive up to the exit to observe, hike and generally mess around.
And so we did.
This particular area certainly highlights the beauty of Death Valley... and also how out of shape we all were. Like... it wasn’t all that hot but man... it wasn’t long before our canteens were empty and I was missing the air conditioning. Still, it was a great way to end the day.
This brought us to our hotel in Beatty, Nevada. Not a big town, basically home to a few casinos and... not a lot else, it had the benefit of being very close to the entrance of Titus Canyon, our first stop tomorrow.
We checked into our hotel and immediately set out to find some food. Of which there was none. Except Denny’s. I don’t personally have anything against Denny’s, but I’ll admit I probably haven’t been to one in... twenty years? Still, it was pretty much exactly what I expected and to be honest the food wasn’t bad. We ate and were generally not disappointed by either the quality or the preparation.
We then spent the evening playing blackjack at the only open table in the casino. I wish some of this had made it into the video, because it was an oddly profound moment. The four of us were sitting around a blackjack table, chatting with the dealer and his manager, as a constant stream of regulars filtered to the table and back. We got to piece together bit of their lives from their conversations with the dealer, but generally were left to our game.
It is hard to describe, but at some point in the evening I was like “Holy crap! We’re noise!” We were the random tourists that you may engage with, but are just... there. It was a very odd “through the looking glass” moment to see us from their perspective. We may have been on this big adventure, but they were just living their lives.
We got a brief glimpse into our own irrelevance and it was cool.
The next morning George burned some daylight strapping some $7 Amazon LED spotlights to the front grill of the Jeep. An act that he still describes as “worth it” though the rest of us thought it was pretty silly. Still, I can’t picture that Jeep any other way.
Then we headed to breakfast at a local eatery... Wait... no... that one is closed.
Ok how about... no closed too.
Oh hey this one says it is open! Nope... closed.
...We ate at Denny’s again...
So yeah. Titus Canyon. To be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect. We’d seen the tail end the day before and had heard stories, but we really weren’t prepared for how epic this drive was going to be. End to end, it probably only took us three hours, but every minute of it was awesome.
The drive starts off pretty easy, a normal, wide dirt road. Eventually the road begins to narrow as you begin the climb into the Grapevine Mountains. After a short climb, you begin the 4,700 ft descent to the exit.
We stopped at the Leadfield Ghost Town, which has a pretty amazing history. I’ll let George fill you in:
The Leadville Ghost Town is all that remains of a 1920s get-rich-quick scheme perpetrated by world-class grifter and cartoon villain C.C. Julian. Julian emigrated from Canada to California in the early 20s and immediately established himself as a business magnate and man-about-town in LA, the result of a Ponzi scheme in which he sold millions of dollars of shares in a fake oil company, Julian Petroleum. At the height of his largess, he once picked a bar fight with Charlie Chaplin, and lost.
Unfortunately for Julian, the Corporations Commission caught up with him again and shut down the mining company scam, all but dooming Leadville in the process. He fled to Oklahoma, where he was eventually indicted for mail fraud related to the Julian Oil and Royalties Company, his new fake oil company. He skipped town, ultimately winding up in Shanghai with a fake Irish passport, name, and accent. After a series of failed schemes, and falling victim to several cons himself, he committed suicide in the Shanghai Astor Hotel and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Like... you just can’t make this shit up.
The road into the canyon was pretty unbelievable. At the time, we dubbed it “Off-road Big Sur” because, to be honest, it was like the ocean-less, dirt road version of Big Sur. The single lane dirt road was draped on the side of the mountains, winding continuously down and down and down to the entrance of Titus Canyon proper.
As for Titus Canyon, there isn’t really a EUREKA! moment when you get there. The walls around you just gradually narrow until you’re finally like oh... yeah... we’re in a canyon.
That said... it was amazing. The canyon was narrow, tall, and so very pretty. Against all odd this is one of the times the video does a better job at showing how cool it was as, weirdly, we didn’t do many photo stops.
I did strap a 360 camera to my roof for part of it, which you can view here. (Best viewed on mobile)
We will be back, that is for sure.
(Sidenote: I actually tried to go back in August, but the drive was closed due to a washout.)
That over, it was barely noon so we had plenty of time to do other stuff. We opted to do some touristy stuff.
First stop was Artists Drive, which is famous for having some very pretty rocks. It certainly lived up the the hype!
I guess the real appeal of Artists Drive is the hiking, which we did not do, so we sort of missed out.
We did, however, get our first taste of just how many tourists visit Death Valley. The place was packed to the brim.
Also minor Land Rover repairs were needed. Luckily, it was just that my headlight mount was slightly wonky and the rough going had popped the glass out of its mounting. No. Big. Deal. (Thankfully)
Our next stop, Badwater Basin, was even more so. This place is pretty cool, mostly because it really gives you some scale of how weird Death Valley is. On a cliff high above the parking lot there is a sign. It says “Sea Level”.
Yeah, that... breaks my brain a little. This is, in fact, the lowest point in North America, at -282 ft, and the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere.
We wandered around for a bit and generally admired, but the wind was crazy so we opted to move on.
For our final trip of the day we were going to head to the southern entrance into West Side Road, which is a dirt road that parallels Badwater Road, the main north-south road in Death Valley, and do some exploring. However, after the horrors of the washboard the day before, we were... unsure if that was what we really wanted.
The first few feet of travel gave us our answer.
We turned around and headed back to the hotel for a mediocre buffet, a trip to the on-site bar, and sleep.
Zabriski Point, we’re told, is best viewed at sunrise.
We did not view Zabriski Point at sunrise.
We didn’t view Zabriski Point at all.
You see... when you’ve spent the last five days feeling like you’re the only people on earth, pulling up to a lookout that has almost no free parking and several tour busses parked can be a bit... jarring. We opted to GTFO as quickly as possible, rather than face our fellow
man. Men? Mens? humans.
It did look pretty anyway.
The next stop was something called “Hole In the Wall” which, as it sounds like, is allegedly a small passage through a cliff face that is super neat. When this was first pitched in our planning meetings, I was picturing something like the drive-through trees that we did on the first road trip. No way a Land Rover was going to fit through there.
Turns out we... didn’t have anything to worry about.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a cool thing, but the “hole” was actually so large we missed it the first time. It was only on the way back that we realized we were upon it, and only then because it was literally marked on our maps!
Anyway, after unknowingly passing the hole, we pressed on... sure the hole was just around the bend.
What we did come upon was an increasingly difficult road.
In retrospect, this was actually some pretty easy off-roading, but at the time we’d never encountered anything this hard or dangerous. The rocks that comprised about 35% of the trail was in no way stable and would kick with the slightest wheel spin.
We opted to turn around, which was harder than it sounds.
I did a three point turn in one of the switchbacks and then backed down a not-road to allow Taylor to do the same. George opted to do a 24-point turn where he was and then back-up to us.
Overall it worked out and we survived. I’d really like to take that trail on knowing what I know now.
Maybe some day.
On the way back in we found the hole (heyo) and decided to stop for lunch. I mention it a little in the video, but there was something so strange about this lunch. It was, by far, the most memorable of the trip. Sitting on the tailgate of the Jeep, eating cheap cheese with some cured meat, using the cooler as a cutting board, and sipping appropriate amounts of wine. (Don’t drink and drive kids.) It was very... perfect. We’ve tried to recreate the magic on subsequent trips and failed, but that is OK too...
Finally it was time to leave Death Valley, something none of us are particularly happy about, but, alas, it had to be. We opted to take an overland route out and enjoyed the heck out of it.
Eventually we reached the top of the pass and stopped for pictures.
Then the Jeep broke down.
George went to start it and while it would crank it... didn’t sound right.
I suspected a MAF issue, but luckily it was way more simple than that. The battery terminals on the Jeep were ruined. Like... not sure how he made it this far ruined. My guess is all the shaking earlier in the day was too much for it and... boop.
Luckily it was an easy fix and he later stopped and replaced the terminals entirely.
Wow we fucked up here.
So you know how we’d mentioned at this point we’d developed a... distaste for other people? Yeah... how did we think being in the press of humanity that is Vegas.
It was pretty brutal and one of the few things I’d change about this trip.
But also where today’s episode ends.
We did have a secret birthday surprise for George but... that is also for a story for another day.
Next up: Vegas, Valley of Fire, and driving into the Grand Canyon. We’ve made it this far... what could go wrong?
Most, if not all, photos are by Taylor. Please ask for permission before using.